BROSSARD, Que. — A youth movement could take over the Montreal Canadiens locker room this season.
Every year across the NHL, it's not uncommon for a young prospect to impress his coaches and defy the odds by making a team's opening-day roster.
For the Canadiens, it was Victor Mete in 2017. Last season, Jesperi Kotkaniemi went from first-round draft pick to making NHL debut in less than four months.
This season, two 20-year-olds — forward Nick Suzuki and defenceman Cale Fleury — appear poised to be with Montreal on opening night. Another 20-year-old — forward Ryan Poehling — was sent down to the club's American Hockey League affiliate in Laval, Que., on Tuesday, though he will have every chance of making the jump this season.
"Some young players really stood out this camp," said general manager Marc Bergevin. "That's always music to our ears, to see young guys grow and fight for spots on the team. It's really good news.
"You just don't want to keep a young player if he won't get decent ice time. Or if he can't keep the pace after 15 games, we'll have to take a decision at that point. That will depend on them."
A franchise that traditionally likes to see prospects develop and flourish in the AHL, the Habs clearly feel some of their youngsters are ready to play in the show.
The performance from Montreal's top prospects at training camp made it difficult for the team to cut them.
Former Guelph Storm star Suzuki had one goal and three assists in five exhibition games, including the overtime winner against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday. The London, Ont., native led the Storm to the Ontario Hockey League title earlier this year.
"I knew coming into camp that they weren't afraid to take younger guys, like Vic (Mete) and Jesperi," said Suzuki. "I kind of owed it to myself to make the team and I think I did a good job."
Poehling, who scored a hat trick and the shootout winner in his NHL debut last season, looked good despite playing just two pre-season contests due to a concussion.
In five starts, Fleury was consistent, poised and quick on the puck while playing on the third defence pairing with Brett Kulak.
Montreal starts the season Thursday in Carolina against the Carolina Hurricanes after going 5-2-0 in exhibition play.
The young players will breathe new life into a team that narrowly missed the playoffs last year. The Canadiens were eliminated on the penultimate day of the season.
A healthy Shea Weber would be a game-changer for Montreal this season. The captain missed the team's first 24 games last season while recovering from two surgeries. If the big-bodied defenceman can stay healthy, the Canadiens will greatly benefit from his powerful shot and imposing net presence.
Weber's slap shot could also be the key to unlocking Montreal's struggling power play. The Canadiens finished 30th last season with the man advantage, scoring a measly 31 goals. A more dangerous power play, which starts with better puck movement, would help in their quest for playoff hockey.
While the majority of Montreal's goals will come from Brendan Gallagher, Max Domi and Tomas Tatar, the Canadiens are counting on a more balanced offence.
The fourth line has often been the team's Achilles heel and Bergevin is hoping he's addressed those concerns in the off-season. The arrival of Nick Cousins and the re-signing of Jordan Weal should increase the level of skill and overall quality on the fourth line.
What's left to see is if Montreal's more mercurial players — like Artturi Lehkonen, Joel Armia and Jonathan Drouin — can find consistency in their play and contribute offensively throughout the campaign.
MONTREAL CANADIENS AT A GLANCE
Claude Julien enters the third year of a five-year contract.
44-30-8 record, missed playoffs by two points.
Keith Kinkaid: You wouldn't expect a backup goaltender to be a pivotal piece in a season — especially not when Carey Price is your starter. But the Canadiens have not had a reliable backup for several years now, which is why they added free agent Kinkaid in the off-season. Montreal hopes Kinkaid will be an upgrade on Antti Niemi, who went 8-6-2 last season.
Jonathan Drouin: Expectations are high again this year for Drouin, who is under constant scrutiny from fans and media. The winger had a respectable 18 goals and 35 assists last season, though he scored just once in his last 26 games. The 24-year-old recorded one assist in four pre-season matches.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi: Can the 19-year-old Kotkaniemi avoid a sophomore slump? The Finnish centre started his rookie season strong but slowed down in the final stretch. He averaged 13:44 of ice time last year — on the low end for Canadiens forwards — and could be asked to take on a larger role on the power play this season. The fan favourite ended his rookie season with 34 points.
THE BIG QUESTION
Have Montreal's young players been thrust into the limelight too soon? Or is this a new age for Canadiens hockey? While the storied franchise has always taken its time with prospects, there seems to be a new approach this season. Players like Kotkaniemi, Suzuki, Fleury and Mete are being given a chance to prove themselves on hockey's biggest stage. Can these young players carry Montreal into the playoffs for the first time since 2017?
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2019.
Kelsey Patterson, The Canadian Press